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Africa: "War on Drugs" Blowback Effects

AfricaFocus Bulletin
Jun 14, 2011 (110614)
(Reposted from sources cited below)

Editor's Note

"Vast expenditures on criminalization and repressive measures directed at producers, traffickers and consumers of illegal drugs have clearly failed to effectively curtail supply or consumption. [at the same time] the implementation of the war on drugs has generated widespread negative consequences for societies in producer, transit and consumer countries, [including] the growth of a 'huge criminal black market', financed by the risk-escalated profits of supplying international demand for illicit drugs." - Global Commission on Drug Policy

The Global Commission on Drug Policy ( released its report on June 2, headlining its press release with a mention of a few of the the prominent world leaders composing the Commission. "Former Presidents of Brazil, Colombia, Mexico and Switzerland, Prime Minister of Greece, Kofi Annan, Richard Branson, George Shultz, Paul Volcker and Other Leaders Call for Major Paradigm Shift in Global Drug; Policy Commission of World Leaders Urges End to Failed Drug War, Fundamental Reforms of Global Drug Prohibition Regime" read the headline.

Background papers prepared for the Commission, and available on its website, were even more explicit in denouncing the U.S.- inspired "War on Drugs" and the overwhelming focus on law enforcement in international action on drugs. While Africa has long been relatively marginal in global drugs trafficking, in recent years market pressures have led Latin American criminal networks to make increasing use of West Africa as a transit route to Europe. While the scale of such transit links is less elsewhere in Africa, both markets internal to the continent and the use of transit routes from Asia to Europe are also reportedly on the increase.

This makes a change in global approach more and more critical for Africa, given the Commission's evidence that the current approach, far from reducing addiction, trafficking, and associated criminal networks, actually tends to fuel such phenomena.

Given that law enforcement approaches dominate public opinion as well as the political and policy arenas on drug issues, in African as well as many other countries, the Commission's call for a more informed and open debate and evidence-based policies deserves more attention than it appears to be receiving.

This AfricaFocus Bulletin contains excerpts from the Commission's report, which stresses a shift from prohibition and interdiction to health-oriented approaches, while continuing to target criminal networks (but not users and low-level distributors) with law enforcement measures.

Another AfricaFocus Bulletin released today, not sent out by email but available on the web at, contains excerpts from two recent analyses of Guinea-Bissau and the impact of drug trafficking there. Both call attention to the global context as one primary determinant of the current situation in GuineaBissau, but caution against focusing only on the drug trade in international support for development and human security in that country, which is highly dependent on international aid.



Remember to check AfricaFocus Facebook page (at if you are not already signed up to "like" the page in Facebook) for recent updates, including topics not featured in recent AfricaFocus Bulletins. Yesterday, for example, articles noted on new large-scale violence by North Sudan government in border area of South Kordofan (Nuba Mountains) which has not received much media attention.

++++++++++++++++++++++end editor's note+++++++++++++++++

War on Drugs Report of the Global Commission on Drug Policy

June 2011

Global Commission on Drug Policy

[Excerpts only. Full report, as well as helpful background papers, available on the Commission website.]

Executive Summary

The global war on drugs has failed, with devastating consequences for individuals and societies around the world. Fifty years after the initiation of the UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, and 40 years after President Nixon launched the US government's war on drugs, fundamental reforms in national and global drug control policies are urgently needed.

Vast expenditures on criminalization and repressive measures directed at producers, traffickers and consumers of illegal drugs have clearly failed to effectively curtail supply or consumption. Apparent victories in eliminating one source or trafficking organization are negated almost instantly by the emergence of other sources and traffickers. Repressive efforts directed at consumers impede public health measures to reduce HIV/AIDS, overdose fatalities and other harmful consequences of drug use. Government expenditures on futile supply reduction strategies and incarceration displace more cost-effective and evidence-based investments in demand and harm reduction.

Our principles and recommendations can be summarized as follows:

  • End the criminalization, marginalization and stigmatization of people who use drugs but who do no harm to others. Challenge rather than reinforce common misconceptions about drug markets, drug use and drug dependence.
  • Encourage experimentation by governments with models of legal regulation of drugs to undermine the power of organized crime and safeguard the health and security of their citizens. This recommendation applies especially to cannabis, but we also encourage other experiments in decriminalization and legal regulation that can accomplish these objectives and provide models for others.
  • Offer health and treatment services to those in need. Ensure that a variety of treatment modalities are available, including not just methadone and buprenorphine treatment but also the heroin-assisted treatment programs that have proven successful in many European countries and Canada. Implement syringe access and other harm reduction measures that have proven effective in reducing transmission of HIV and other blood-borne infections as well as fatal overdoses. Respect the human rights of people who use drugs. Abolish abusive practices carried out in the name of treatment -- such as forced detention, forced labor, and physical or psychological abuse -- that contravene human rights standards and norms or that remove the right to self-determination.
  • Apply much the same principles and policies stated above to people involved in the lower ends of illegal drug markets, such as farmers, couriers and petty sellers. Many are themselves victims of violence and intimidation or are drug dependent. Arresting and incarcerating tens of millions of these people in recent decades has filled prisons and destroyed lives and families without reducing the availability of illicit drugs or the power of criminal organizations. There appears to be almost no limit to the number of people willing to engage in such activities to better their lives, provide for their families, or otherwise escape poverty. Drug control resources are better directed elsewhere.
  • Invest in activities that can both prevent young people from taking drugs in the first place and also prevent those who do use drugs from developing more serious problems. Eschew simplistic 'just say no' messages and 'zero tolerance' policies in favor of educational efforts grounded in credible information and prevention programs that focus on social skills and peer influences. The most successful prevention efforts may be those targeted at specific at-risk groups.
  • Focus repressive actions on violent criminal organizations, but do so in ways that undermine their power and reach while prioritizing the reduction of violence and intimidation. Law enforcement efforts should focus not on reducing drug markets per se but rather on reducing their harms to individuals, communities and national security.
  • Begin the transformation of the global drug prohibition regime. Replace drug policies and strategies driven by ideology and political convenience with fiscally responsible policies and strategies grounded in science, health, security and human rights – and adopt appropriate criteria for their evaluation. Review the scheduling of drugs that has resulted in obvious anomalies like the flawed categorization of cannabis, coca leaf and MDMA. Ensure that the international conventions are interpreted and/or revised to accommodate robust experimentation with harm reduction, decriminalization and legal regulatory policies.
  • Break the taboo on debate and reform. The time for action is now.


The global war on drugs has failed. When the United Nations Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs came into being 50 years ago, and when President Nixon launched the US government's war on drugs 40 years ago, policymakers believed that harsh law enforcement action against those involved in drug production, distribution and use would lead to an ever-diminishing market in controlled drugs such as heroin, cocaine and cannabis, and the eventual achievement of a 'drug free world'. In practice, the global scale of illegal drug markets – largely controlled by organized crime – has grown dramatically over this period. While accurate estimates of global consumption across the entire 50- year period are not available, an analysis of the last 10 years alone shows a large and growing market.

UN Estimates of Annual Drug Consumption, 1998 TO 2008

Year               Opiates         Cocaine 		Cannabis

1998            12.9 million    13.4 million    147.4 million
2008            17.35 million   17 million      160 million
% increase      34.5%           27%             8.5%

In spite of the increasing evidence that current policies are not achieving their objectives, most policymaking bodies at the national and international level have tended to avoid open scrutiny or debate on alternatives.

This lack of leadership on drug policy has prompted the establishment of our Commission, and leads us to our view that the time is now right for a serious, comprehensive and wideranging review of strategies to respond to the drug phenomenon. The starting point for this review is the recognition of the global drug problem as a set of interlinked health and social challenges to be managed, rather than a war to be won.

Commission members have agreed on four core principles that should guide national and international drug policies and strategies, and have made eleven recommendations for action.

1. Drug policies must be based on solid empirical and scientific evidence. The primary measure of success should be the reduction of harm to the health, security and welfare of individuals and society.

In the 50 years since the United Nations initiated a truly global drug prohibition system, we have learned much about the nature and patterns of drug production, distribution, use and dependence, and the effectiveness of our attempts to reduce these problems. It might have been understandable that the architects of the system would place faith in the concept of eradicating drug production and use (in the light of the limited evidence available at the time). There is no excuse, however, for ignoring the evidence and experience accumulated since then. Drug policies and strategies at all levels too often continue to be driven by ideological perspectives, or political convenience, and pay too little attention to the complexities of the drug market, drug use and drug addiction.


2. Drug policies must be based on human rights and public health principles. We should end the stigmatization and marginalization of people who use certain drugs and those involved in the lower levels of cultivation, production and distribution, and treat people dependent on drugs as patients, not criminals.

Certain fundamental principles underpin all aspects of national and international policy. These are enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and many international treaties that have followed. Of particular relevance to drug policy are the rights to life, to health, to due process and a fair trial, to be free from torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, from slavery, and from discrimination. These rights are inalienable, and commitment to them takes precedence over other international agreements, including the drug control conventions. As the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navanethem Pillay, has stated, “Individuals who use drugs do not forfeit their human rights. Too often, drug users suffer discrimination, are forced to accept treatment, marginalized and often harmed by approaches which over-emphasize criminalization and punishment while under-emphasizing harm reduction and respect for human rights.”


An indiscriminate approach to 'drug trafficking' is similarly problematic. Many people taking part in the drug market are themselves the victims of violence and intimidation, or are dependent on drugs. An example of this phenomenon are the drug 'mules' who take the most visible and risky roles in the supply and delivery chain. Unlike those in charge of drug trafficking organizations, these individuals do not usually have an extensive and violent criminal history, and some engage in the drug trade primarily to get money for their own drug dependence. We should not treat all those arrested for trafficking as equally culpable – many are coerced into their actions, or are driven to desperate measures through their own addiction or economic situation. It is not appropriate to punish such individuals in the same way as the members of violent organized crime groups who control the market.

Finally, many countries still react to people dependent on drugs with punishment and stigmatization. In reality, drug dependence is a complex health condition that has a mixture of causes – social, psychological and physical (including, for example, harsh living conditions, or a history of personal trauma or emotional problems). Trying to manage this complex condition through punishment is ineffective – much greater success can be achieved by providing a range of evidence-based drug treatment services. Countries that have treated citizens dependent on drugs as patients in need of treatment, instead of criminals deserving of punishment, have demonstrated extremely positive results in crime reduction, health improvement, and overcoming dependence.


3. The development and implementation of drug policies should be a global shared responsibility, but also needs to take into consideration diverse political, social and cultural realities. Policies should respect the rights and needs of people affected by production, trafficking and consumption, as explicitly acknowledged in the 1988 Convention on Drug Trafficking.

The UN drug control system is built on the idea that all governments should work together to tackle drug markets and related problems. This is a reasonable starting point, and there is certainly a responsibility to be shared between producing, transit and consuming countries (although the distinction is increasingly blurred, as many countries now experience elements of all three).

However, the idea of shared responsibility has too often become a straitjacket that inhibits policy development and experimentation. The UN (through the International Narcotics Control Board), and in particular the US (notably through its 'certification' process), have worked strenuously over the last 50 years to ensure that all countries adopt the same rigid approach to drug policy – the same laws, and the same tough approach to their enforcement. As national governments have become more aware of the complexities of the problems, and options for policy responses in their own territories, many have opted to use the flexibilities within the Conventions to try new strategies and programs, such as decriminalization initiatives or harm reduction programs. When these involve a more tolerant approach to drug use, governments have faced international diplomatic pressure to 'protect the integrity of the Conventions', even when the policy is legal, successful and supported in the country.


4. Drug policies must be pursued in a comprehensive manner, involving families, schools, public health specialists, development practitioners and civil society leaders, in partnership with law enforcement agencies and other relevant governmental bodies.

With their strong focus on law enforcement and punishment, it is not surprising that the leading institutions in the implementation of the drug control system have been the police, border control and military authorities directed by Ministries of Justice, Security or Interior. At the multilateral level, regional or United Nations structures are also dominated by these interests. Although governments have increasingly recognized that law enforcement strategies for drug control need to be integrated into a broader approach with social and public health programs, the structures for policymaking, budget allocation, and implementation have not modernized at the same pace.

These institutional dynamics obstruct objective and evidencebased policymaking. This is more than a theoretical problem – repeated studies have demonstrated that governments achieve much greater financial and social benefit for their communities by investing in health and social programs, rather than investing in supply reduction and law enforcement activities. However, in most countries, the vast majority of available resources are spent on the enforcement of drug laws and the punishment of people who use drugs.

The lack of coherence is even more marked at the United Nations. The development of the global drug control regime involved the creation of three bodies to oversee the implementation of the conventions – the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB), and the Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND). This structure is premised on the notion that international drug control is primarily a fight against crime and criminals. Unsurprisingly, there is a built-in vested interest in maintaining the law enforcement focus and the senior decisionmakers in these bodies have traditionally been most familiar with this framework.

Now that the nature of the drug policy challenge has changed, the institutions must follow. Global drug policy should be created from the shared strategies of all interested multilateral agencies – UNODC of course, but also UNAIDS, WHO, UNDP, UNICEF, UN Women, the World Bank, and the Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights. The marginalization of the World Health Organization is particularly worrisome given the fact that it has been given a specific mandate under the drug control treaties.


Unintended Consequences

The implementation of the war on drugs has generated widespread negative consequences for societies in producer, transit and consumer countries. These negative consequences were well summarized by the former Executive Director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, Antonio Maria Costa, as falling into five broad categories:

  1. The growth of a 'huge criminal black market', financed by the risk-escalated profits of supplying international demand for illicit drugs.
  2. Extensive policy displacement, the result of using scarce resources to fund a vast law enforcement effort intended to address this criminal market.
  3. Geographical displacement, often known as 'the balloon effect', whereby drug production shifts location to avoid the attentions of law enforcement.
  4. Substance displacement, or the movement of consumers to new substances when their previous drug of choice becomes difficult to obtain, for instance through law enforcement pressure.
  5. The perception and treatment of drug users, who are stigmatized, marginalized and excluded.


1. Break the taboo. Pursue an open debate and promote policies that effectively reduce consumption, and that prevent and reduce harms related to drug use and drug control policies. Increase investment in research and analysis into the impact of different policies and programs.

Political leaders and public figures should have the courage to articulate publicly what many of them acknowledge privately: that the evidence overwhelmingly demonstrates that repressive strategies will not solve the drug problem, and that the war on drugs has not, and cannot, be won. Governments do have the power to pursue a mix of policies that are appropriate to their own situation, and manage the problems caused by drug markets and drug use in a way that has a much more positive impact on the level of related crime, as well as social and health harms.

2. Replace the criminalization and punishment of people who use drugs with the offer of health and treatment services to those who need them.

A key idea behind the 'war on drugs' approach was that the threat of arrest and harsh punishment would deter people from using drugs. In practice, this hypothesis has been disproved – many countries that have enacted harsh laws and implemented widespread arrest and imprisonment of drug users and low-level dealers have higher levels of drug use and related problems than countries with more tolerant approaches. Similarly, countries that have introduced decriminalization, or other forms of reduction in arrest or punishment, have not seen the rises in drug use or dependence rates that had been feared.


[section with examples showing decriminalization does not lead to increased drug use - Portugal, Netherlands, Australia, comparison among U.S. states]

In the light of these experiences, it is clear that the policy of harsh criminalization and punishment of drug use has been an expensive mistake, and governments should take steps to refocus their efforts and resources on diverting drug users into health and social care services. Of course, this does not necessarily mean that sanctions should be removed altogether – many drug users will also commit other crimes for which they need to be held responsible – but the primary reaction to drug possession and use should be the offer of appropriate advice, treatment and health services to individuals who need them, rather than expensive and counterproductive criminal punishments.

3. Encourage experimentation by governments with models of legal regulation of drugs (with cannabis, for example) that are designed to undermine the power of organized crime and safeguard the health and security of their citizens.

The debate on alternative models of drug market regulation has too often been constrained by false dichotomies – tough or soft, repressive or liberal. ...

If national governments or local administrations feel that decriminalization policies will save money and deliver better health and social outcomes for their communities, or that the creation of a regulated market may reduce the power of organized crime and improve the security of their citizens, then the international community should support and facilitate such policy experiments and learn from their application.


4. Establish better metrics, indicators and goals to measure progress.

The current system of measuring success in the drug policy field is fundamentally flawed. The impact of most drug strategies are currently assessed by the level of crops eradicated, arrests, seizures and punishments applied to users, growers and dealers. In fact, arresting and punishing drug users does little to reduce levels of drug use, taking out low-level dealers simply creates a market opportunity for others, and even the largest and most successful operations against organized criminals (that take years to plan and implement) have been shown to have, at best, a marginal and short-lived impact on drug prices and availability. Similarly, eradication of opium, cannabis or coca crops merely displaces illicit cultivation to other areas.

A new set of indicators is needed to truly show the outcomes of drug policies, according to their harms or benefits for individuals and communities – for example, the number of victims of drug market-related violence and intimidation; the level of corruption generated by drug markets; the level of petty crime committed by dependent users; levels of social and economic development in communities where drug production, selling or consumption are concentrated; the level of drug dependence in communities; the level of overdose deaths; and the level of HIV or hepatitis C infection among drug users. Policymakers can and should articulate and measure the outcome of these objectives.


6. Countries that continue to invest mostly in a law enforcement approach (despite the evidence) should focus their repressive actions on violent organized crime and drug traffickers, in order to reduce the harms associated with the illicit drug market.

The resources of law enforcement agencies can be much more effectively targeted at battling the organized crime groups that have expanded their power and reach on the back of drug market profits. In many parts of the world, the violence, intimidation and corruption perpetrated by these groups is a significant threat to individual and national security and to democratic institutions, so efforts by governments and law enforcement agencies to curtail their activities remain essential.


Law Enforcement and the Escalation of Violence

A group of academics and public health experts based in British Columbia have conducted a systematic review of evidence relating to the impact of increased law enforcement on drug marketrelated violence (for example, armed gangs fighting for control of the drug trade, or homicide and robberies connected to the drug trade).

In multiple US locations, as well as in Sydney, Australia, the researchers found that increased arrests and law enforcement pressures on drug markets were strongly associated with increased homicide rates and other violent crimes. Of all the studies examining the effect of increased law enforcement on drug market violence, 91 percent concluded that increased law enforcement actually increased drug market violence.


7. Promote alternative sentences for small-scale and first-time drug dealers.

While the idea of decriminalization has mainly been discussed in terms of its application to people who use drugs or who are struggling with drug dependence, we propose that the same approach be considered for those at the bottom of the drug selling chain. The majority of people arrested for small-scale drug selling are not gangsters or organized criminals. They are young people who are exploited to do the risky work of street selling, dependent drug users trying to raise money for their own supply, or couriers coerced or intimidated into taking drugs across borders. These people are generally prosecuted under the same legal provisions as the violent and organized criminals who control the market, resulting in the indiscriminate application of severe penalties.


8. Invest more resources in evidence-based prevention, with a special focus on youth.

Clearly, the most valuable investment would be in activities that stop young people from using drugs in the first place, and that prevent experimental users from becoming problematic or dependent users. Prevention of initiation or escalation is clearly preferable to responding to the problems after they occur. Unfortunately, most early attempts at reducing overall rates of drug use through mass prevention campaigns were poorly planned and implemented. While the presentation of good (and credible) information on the risks of drug use is worthwhile, the experience of universal prevention (such as media campaigns, or school-based drug prevention programs) has been mixed. Simplistic 'just say no' messages do not seem to have a significant impact.


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AfricaFocus Bulletin is an independent electronic publication providing reposted commentary and analysis on African issues, with a particular focus on U.S. and international policies. AfricaFocus Bulletin is edited by William Minter.

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